Painting of Katherine Dunham

Rhythm & Roots Depicts Legendary Dancers 

Katherine Dunham (depicted above), Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Fred Astaire, and Martha Graham are a few of the acclaimed dancers and personalities that have enthralled audiences over this past century. These and many more famed dancers are exquisitely depicted by American artists in this Denver Art Museum exhibition Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art.

Since the early 1900s, dance in America shifted from private and social locales like the home and clubs to the formal, public stage where dancers, artists in their own right, displayed the splendors and skills of their profession to captivated audiences. We became equally fascinated by both the dancer’s artistry and public persona. Read on to learn a little about some of these legends. (Watch a CBS4 video of Anna Pavlova's tutu being prepped for display.)

Fred Astaire (1899–1987)

“I just dance.” – Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire’s prolific career in film leaves us ample evidence of him gliding across the stage with an energy and charm that dazzled audiences with his seemingly effortless performances. In the process, he elevated the performer to status of celebrity. Here is a photograph by Edward Steichen in which Fred Astaire dons the costume from his breakout performance in Broadway’s 1927 Funny Face.

A black and white photograph of Fred Astaire
Edward J. Steichen (American, 1879-1973); Fred Astaire, 1927. Gelatin silver print; Framed: 22 ¼ x 16 ¼ x 1 ¼ in. (56.5 x 41.3 x 3.2 cm.); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution: Acquired in memory of Agnes and Eugene Meyer through the generosity of Katharine Graham and the New York Community Trust, The Island Fund, NPG.2001.15. © The Estate of Steichen / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Isadora Duncan (1877–1927)

“Dancing [is] the highest intelligence in the freest body.” – Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan’s exuberance filled her life both professionally and personally. Duncan’s flowing dress complemented her spontaneous and free movements, heralding a moment where dancers move onto the stage and become iconic figures known by name and with astounding popularity.

Painting of Isadora Duncan
John Sloan (American 1871-1951); Isadora Duncan, 1911. Oil on canvas; 32 ¼ x 26 ¼ in. (81.92 x 66.68 cm); Milwaukee Art Museum: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Abert, M1969.27. © 2015 Delaware Art Museum / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Katherine Dunham (1909–2006)

“I felt [there] were bridges and ties I was destined to cross.” – Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham became a pioneer in African American modern dance, creating the Dunham Technique, which was a fusion of vibrant Caribbean dances, traditional ballets, and African rhythms and movements. Trained as an anthropologist, her work bridged cultures through dance and she created a legacy of global activism and leadership in human rights.

Included with General Admission; Free for Members

Come to Rhythm & Roots July 10-October 2, 2016 to explore and celebrate an array of movements and dancers that formed the rich roots of American dance. Whether through a legendary performer or an everyday dancer, these vibrant traditions mixed and merged, stitching a quilt of dance and identity that continues to be adaptive, innovative, and spirited. Learn more about other dance-related exhibitions and programs at the museum this summer.

Top image credit: Werner Philipp (American 1897-1982); Portrait of Katherine Dunham, 1943. Oil on canvas; Framed: 54 ¾ x 45 1/8 x 2 in. (139.1 x 114.6 x 5 cm); Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, 2008.34.1

Ann Lambson is the interpretive specialist for architecture, design, and graphics in the learning and engagement department at the Denver Art Museum. She has been with the DAM since 2015.

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